SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Designing Sex, Death, and Survival in the Twenty-First Century – SVA MA Design Research

Ida C. Benedetto

Designing Sex, Death, and Survival in the Twenty-First Century

Part of Vital Signs

Image courtesy Ida Benedetto

Successful experience designers, self-identified or not, tend to employ similar strategies, especially when it comes to opening people up to risk in a caring way. This research will inform a lexicon for designing experiences, with a specific focus on experiences that aim for human enrichment. Drawing from game studies, positive psychology, and the anthropology of ritual, the lexicon is organized around key areas of any transformative experience: risk, the magic circle, experience structure, and transformation. Close examination of sex parties, funerals, and guided wilderness trips demonstrate that these components are shared across wildly different kinds of intimate social gatherings. Ultimately, the study asks that the designer move beyond practices based on object, mastery, and control toward experience design rooted in practices of exchange, exploration, and transformation.

“So this is what an embalmed corpse looks like,” I thought as I stood over the middle-aged man lying in his coffin. Facing a stranger’s dead body proved easier than facing the crowd milling under the rosy lights of the funeral parlor behind me. Let’s call the deceased man Phillip.1Phillip passed away unexpectedly from a sudden illness. His family didn’t expect him to pass away so quickly. In the absence of any instructions, they reproduced what Phillip had done for his own father who also left no instructions when he passed away half a decade prior. There was no service. No one got up to speak. Everyone just gathered at the right funeral parlor and went to the right cemetery.

The Thai side of the family is Buddhist. “They weren’t aware of the embalming,” said Pamela, Phillip’s oldest daughter from his first marriage.2 She’s part of the white American half of the family, raised Catholic though largely not practicing. Phillip’s second wife is Thai, and Buddhist tradition prohibits any mangling of the body after death. According to Pamela, the Thai side of the family didn’t realize that following what Philip did for his mother would mean violating their own religious practices, and it was Pamela’s impression that they somehow didn’t notice either.

I approached the coffin shortly after a young man, another of Phillip’s children, introduced himself to me and invited me up with him. Maybe he was trying to discern if I was one his half-siblings, as there were several at the funeral he had never met before. We established that I was just a friend of Pamela’s, though the uncertainty persisted as he confused Pamela with Pricilla, another half-sibling by yet another mother. We cleared that up and stood silently in line. The awkward encounter scared the tears of grief out of the man’s eyes, though he looked distressed about failing to find emotional sanctuary in the crowd.

I found sanctuary from the crowd’s simmering social anxiety as I faced Philip in his coffin, examining the wrinkles in his hands and the shape of his eyelids closed over the caps the embalmer used to keep them shut. But I wasn’t grieving for him like everyone else in the room. I shuffled on, shaking the hands of a line of sad Thai women, and wondered if I should find Pamela or go hide in a corner.

Phillips’ funeral seems like an impossible situation to design for, with its varying cultural backgrounds, religious practices, family secrets, and individual needs colliding in one room. When I described the scene to Chazz Levi, who has three decades of experience producing high-end events and weddings, she instantly proposed an approach in her trademark no nonsense style. “If I was one of those baby mamma, my first thought would be to thank this man for giving me these beautiful children, and to let these children know that while maybe he wasn’t around while they grew up, they came from a place of passion.”3

This study proposes a lexicon for designing experiences, with a special focus on experiences that pose the possibility for human enrichment through intimate encounters with risk and the nuanced application of care. What are the design components of transformative social experiences? Drawing from game studies and the anthropology of ritual, the lexicon is organized around key areas of any transformative experience; risk, the magic circle, experience structure, and transformation. Case studies on sex parties, funerals, and guided wilderness trips demonstrate that these components are shared across wildly different kinds of intimate social gatherings. By stretching the definition of “designer” to include the sex party purveyors, funeral directors, and wilderness guides we will encounter in this study, I hope to put conventional design practice in direct dialogue with individuals who, when at the height of their practice, are remediating what it means to be human in a decidedly designerly and forward thinking way. That is to say, they are deliberately planning and executing systems, their functioning, and their by taking into consideration pragmatic requirements of both aesthetics and function.

With the lexicon in hand, I hope that designers will be able to push their craft to new levels and find common ground with one another. My aim is also for non-designers to be able to understand the essential components of transformative experiences so that they can find accessible entry points into the process for themselves.

Lurking beneath the quest for a new vocabulary for designing social encounters with risk is my desire that design shift from the creation of entities that facilitate actions toward the orchestration of contexts where experiences occur. By challenging the role of the designer in society to move away from a focus on object, mastery, and control toward one of exchange, exploration, and transformation, I hope to reinvigorate the profession for a volatile and dexterous future.


What is Experience Design?

What is an experience exactly? Sociologist Erving Goffman, who pioneered theories of social interaction in the 1950s, describes an experience as having “a brief time span, a limited extension of space, and the restriction in those events that must go on to completion once they have begun… It is that class of events which occurs during co-presence and by virtue of co-presence.”4 So, in Goffman’s definition, an experience is demarcated by time, space, goings-on and (hopefully good) company.

Experience Design can be defined as the creation of experiences for the purposes of entertainment, persuasion, recreation, or human enrichment where the emotional journey of the individual or a group is the focus.

Literature on experience design often focuses on commercial and retail contexts or digital experiences. The “design” part is centered on the things, such as architectural layout, digital interfaces, and commercial products. The “experience” is handled as a byproduct of the objects in the environment. This is as suspect as suggesting that the game of chess can be understood by analyzing the game board and pieces, while ignoring the rule set. Some design theorists argue that the rule set is actually the most meaningful and durable designed cultural component of the game.5

So why aren’t we taking a similar approach in assessing the design of experiences? A vocabulary that focuses on the experience first and foremost as an ephemeral social interaction made possible through identifiable and repeatable design techniques will supplement the existing research on people interacting with things or an environment.

Two historical forces make this work relevant now. First is the move from passive spectator experiences of culture, like movies, to more active participatory media, like games. Now that digital media and network culture supersedes broadcast media thanks to the internet, it is customary for people to look for opportunities to pushback and participate in experiences where passive engagement once sufficed.6 The second move is a shift in the economy away from industrial production with a focus on objects to a service economy where experiences are the selling point as much as the objects contained in them.7 Further complications in notions of economy with the advent of the sharing economy, gifting economies, and other economic hacks place increasing emphasis on the context and experience for transactions of all sorts.8 Between the media and economic shift, experiences are now highly sought out as valuable cultural capital. In 2013, digital culture journalist Frank Rose devised a cross-generational study of media consumption habits in the US and UK for marketing firm JWT.9 “Not surprisingly, we found that the younger you were,” said Rose, “the more likely you were to do things digitally. What was surprising is that the younger you were, the more likely you were to value physical things and physical experiences.”10 So, vinyl is making a comeback and people will pay handsomely to attend immersive theater performance.

While physical experiences of all kinds are likely to be impacted, I believe these trends can be leveraged to address a deeper and more fundamental shift that’s afoot. The United States’ increasingly diverse, networked, and participatory culture strains traditions created by more homogenous and geographically contained groups. Art critic Thomas McEvilley suggests that this is a natural historical cycle. ”A period in which traditions are destroyed is apt to be followed by a period of nostalgic longing for them and attempts to reconstruct them.”11

In the initial decades of the 21st century, design is looked to for solutions that provide emotional catharsis and interpersonal connection. Such human needs are historically managed by the social apparatus with the most power. Where in previous eras, social gatherings and ritual experiences may have been informed by religious institutions, cultural institutions, or the state, they are now in the domain of design, which places them in the capitalist market. Experiences as deliberately produced cultural artifacts need more attention for how they figure into design rhetoric.


Taken to the Extremes: Sex, Death, and Survival

Case studies on sex parties, funerals, and guided wilderness trips allow us to consider high stakes situations of varying kinds of risk, bringing into relief the design techniques of practicing experience designers, even if their folk practice has not yet been embraced by design professionals. An effective lexicon for experience design should apply equally to each case study. What do sex parties, funerals, and wilderness trips have in common? They are inextricably physical in nature requiring that the participant reckon with their bodily existence; they all involve a guide or facilitator, who may or may not be the designer, charged with managing exposure to risk and the group dynamic; the experiences are interpersonal and require active participation; all of the experiences are in some way inexhaustible, in that what the participant does and takes away from the experience has such wide variety and depth that it cannot be fully controlled or prescribed by the designer; and finally, following Erving Goffman’s definition of a social encounter, they are all bound by space, time, goings-on, and co-presence.

The most important commonality among these experiences though is that the risk posed to the participant also poses a chaotic and uncontrollable element to the designer that, if fully tamed, destroys the transformative potential of the experience. In the case of sex parties, the potentially chaotic element that the guide needs to manage is human sexuality and desire. For funerals and post-death customs generally, the risky element at play is human emotions around mourning. In wilderness trips, the uncontrollable element is the inherently vulnerable nature of human life when put in a context not designed to address basic survival needs.

The case study examples used here are American in context and mostly white in terms of racial background, thus representing a very narrow range of experiences. Traditions are rich sources for insight into how to co-exist and how to navigate risk, and a study with the ethnocentrism here cannot possibly offer a representative look as the vast cultural wealth inherent in the many traditions that have already tackled the issues inherent in the case studies.

Funerary traditions across cultures vary dramatically and it would be unfeasible and beside the point to account for that great variety here. Funerals are relevant to this study because the challenging and risky experience they present is something that everyone is connected to through their own mortality, and we are in a moment of scrutiny and innovation around the culture of death in America today as the green burial movement takes off and home funerals see a resurgence for the first time in a century.

Sometimes people developing their own traditions together become a subculture. In the instance of sex parties and wilderness trips, the ability to offer these experiences to a broader public is deeply dependent upon the subcultures invested in the experiences. For the purposes of this study, the inner workings of the subcultures are beyond our purview. What is important are experience design techniques that these subcultures offer to outsiders without expectations that they join the subculture.

Given the study’s ethnocentrism, I can’t help but wonder who needs these experiences and what kind of cultural poverty are they trying to address. A number of voices in white Liberal academia are concerned about the cultural poverty produced by an inability to confront and embrace difference.12 While certain strains of critical race theory make strident attempts to prove the cultural worth of non-dominant groups,13 this study suggests that there might be a severe cultural poverty lurking in 20th century designers’ success in creating beautiful, comfortable, and useful environments for people with the means to access them. What would it be like if designers changed things up by helping society’s most privileged groups turn away from the comfortable objects and environments that they have put so much effort into creating? What would those groups then be able to turn toward?

This is not exactly an ethnographic study even though ethnographic methods are at play. As much as possible, I’ve experienced each case study personally. By attending sex parties thrown by various purveyors, paying multiple visits to the crematory, and embarking on a weeklong wilderness expedition, I have not simply attended these experiences; I have offered myself up to be transformed and implicated my body as a tool of research. Each hard won invitation unfailing conjured a worrisome “oh, fuck” feeling as I face the risks that the experiences posed to my own sense of self and ordering of the world. While I have listened and observed, I have also participated. The translation of insights that are first corporeal, then emotions, and finally intellectual into a critical text has not been smooth thanks in part to the slow stitching back together that each of these experiences require. Many insights and hunches have been left out in the hopes of returning to them in a looser, more expressive context.

To add to the complications of the study, I myself am a professional experience designer. My quick access to some of my research subjects is thanks in part to my reputation as an experience designer,14 and my staying power is indebted to a mutual eagerness among me and the designers in this study to talk shop and compare notes. (My identity as a young, white, queer, affluent, educated woman also inextricably influences my access and impact.) The designers are both in the text and shaping it with me. The squeamish “oh, fuck, what have I gotten myself into” feeling persists as I write this. But what is a good research project without a little romance and danger?


  1. For the sake of privacy, many names and identifying details have been changed throughout.
  2. Pamela, in conversation with the author, February 2016.
  3. There’s no telling if the notion of “passion” would have sat well with the diverse parties in attendance. The interesting thing is Chazz’s impulse to mitigate the emotional risk in the funeral experience by finding a frame for everyone to gather through.

    Successful experience designers, self-identified or not, tend to employ similar strategies, especially when it comes to opening people up to risk in a caring way. Risk is any threat to someone’s social, emotional or physical well-being. Risks can be real or perceived, and in a society where we increasingly have the option to shut ourselves in and avoid uncomfortable or challenging situations, navigating risk through social cooperation is something that, in the words of sociologist Richard Sennett, we are de-skilling ourselves in, leading to potentially unfavorable social and political consequences.15Richard Sennett, Together the Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 8.

  4. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (New York: Anchor Books), 1959.
  5. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, (Boston: MIT Press, 2004), 52.
  6. Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2012).
  7. Joseph B. Pine, and James H Gilmore, The Experience Economy, (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).
  8. Alexa Clay, and Kyra Maya Phillips. The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity From Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).
  9. Frank Rose, Embracing Analogue: Why Physical is Hot, (New York: JTW Intelligence, 2013).
  10. Frank Rose, in conversation with the author, February 2016.
  11. Thomas McEvilley, Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium, (Kingston, N.Y.: McPherson & Co., 1991).
  12. See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, (New York: Vintage, 2012), Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, (New York: New Press, 2007), and Zuckerman, Ethan. Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn’t, and How to Rewire It, (New York: Norton, 2013).
  13. Tara J. Yosso*, “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth,” Race Ethnicity and Education 8, no. 1, 2005, 69-91.
  14. Caroline Winter, “Hide and Go Party,” Bloomberg Businessweek, April 11, 2016, 64.